It’s been nearly a month since my last post, but I am safely back in the Confoederatio Helvetica! I’ve been meaning to post for several days now but have been catching up on sleep. Imposing serious jet lag on the body thrice in under two months is not just unwise, it is criminal. I feel like I’ve just come through a terrible bout of flu. And of course, with all the world’s diseases and germs hitching rides through international airport terminals on a daily basis, I expect to come down with that too any day now. But in the meantime, I’m sleeping as much as I can and drinking preventative quantities of tea…and catching up on my blog!
The jet lag came from being home in the U.S. over the holidays. I wondered before I left whether I would feel any kind of difference coming back to the states from Switzerland…whether I would have missed anything in particular, or found that I had developed any ‘Swiss’ habits. Maybe it’s because I was so busy seeing family and friends, but I transitioned seamlessly back into American life as soon as I touched down in Newark, and back into Swiss life again once I returned here last weekend.
The only thing that betrayed my feet being in two different worlds was a ziploc baggie stuffed with single U.S. dollars and coins (my wallet held Swiss Francs and I didn’t want to mix the two) so that drew some odd looks every time I bought a coffee. Then I had to take out a few Euros as well to stock up on enough coffee to sustain me during my small-hours-of-the-morning layovers in Amsterdam.The problem is, it’s much easier to overspend if you regularly use currencies that are different from your native country’s currency. For example, if you ask me to pay eight U.S. dollars for a bottle of water at the airport, I’ll look at you with a combination of disgust and disappointment before heading straight for the bathroom and sticking my head under the faucet instead. But if you ask me to pay 14 CHF for the same bottle of water, I’ll be much more likely to nod my head stupidly, like a person hypnotized. Why is this?
My theory is that it’s a combination of things. First of all, any transaction that occurs in French MUST be kept to the shortest length possible that isn’t technically rude. I’ve found that the longer I stand at a cash register, the risk of encountering a word or question I have never heard before rises exponentially. Nope, no receipt or bonus card for me, thank you!I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, but my fear of being spoken to runs very deep. Thus, I am much more likely to pay way too much for something if it means that I can leave the shop.
Another factor in the over-spending of foreign currency is travel-weariness–something that airlines and airport businesses exploit mercilessly. But perhaps most important is that it really takes time to get used to instinctively attaching value to foreign currency. Swiss bills are a bit shorter than dollars and quite colorful, in contrast with the grubby gray-green that I am used to. I think that in a way, CHF subconsciously invoke monopoly in my mind, short-circuiting the panic, anxiety, regret, disgust, etc. that I generally feel when I spend American money. This is a skill I will need to develop over time, no doubt!
In an effort not to sell myself short on the language thing, though, I would like to share one small triumph. Soon after returning to Switzerland I went in search of an optician–not because I am having eye troubles, but because I need the blessing (and signature) of one before I can apply for a Swiss driver’s license. Having obtained about half of the forms, photos and other documents necessary for my application, I decided that the eye exam was the next thing to get out of the way.
I found a nice little eyeglasses shop in Nyon, a small village a few kilometers from my house, for this purpose. With a polite greeting and a couple of hand gestures meant to mimic the use of a steering wheel, I successfully communicated to the man behind the counter that I would like to schedule an eye exam for a driver’s license application. The impeccably dressed, combed, shaven, and bespectacled man told me that in fact, I could have the test immediately and that it would take no more than 5 minutes.
I was surprised at this, since I had been expecting to need a rendezvous, but delighted that the test could be done right away. Unfortunately, I hadn’t prepared a series of context-appropriate French phrases and vocabulary words in advance, which I usually do in situations like this. Before going to the town hall or the grocery store or the train station, I always rehearse anticipated interactions by means of an intensive Google translate session. I commit a few key phrases to memory, and then I am on my way. Of course, given the capricious and serendipitous nature of real life, this is rarely a very successful strategy…but it gives me a confidence crutch of sorts.
When I agreed to the eye exam, however, I didn’t think about the fact that it would be conducted in French until I was already in the darkened back room with a penlight shining into my eyeball. As I tried desperately to focus on the man’s rapid-fire questions, and on dredging up the correct answers, I realized that this was going to be an oral exam–not an ocular one! But guess what, I passed–both in terms of language and visual acuity. Thank god I knew the words for the few common animals and objects–le poisson, la lune, l’etoile, la vache, and numbers from 30-50–that the man used on colored cards to test for colorblindness.
So it was a small win, but still a win…and being cleared to apply for a Swiss driver’s license was just icing on the gâteau. Perhaps that will be the subject of my next post!